When I wrote Democratic Individuality (Cambridge, 1990), I was concerned that the term liberal had been degraded in American politics. The Reagan-first Bush era marked an anti-radical or anti-communist assault on the idea - on Walter Mondale with the “L word” or on Michael Dukakis as a “card-carryng ACLU liberal” - to which the Democrats, by and large did not respond and the corporate news media fell silent. I wanted to articulate the attractive moral core of the term. In Democratic Individuality, I argued that liberalism, broadly speaking or at a certain level of abstraction, is, for example in the Federalist Papers, Montesquieu, Hegel, Rawls, Oakeshott and Marx, the view that society is a civitas in which the laws (and the economy) must be so arranged that each individual can pursue her own good as she sees fit, and change that view as she finds necessary, so long as she does not (fundamentally, physically) harm others. To this, I added the important Greek eudaimonist thought, reiterated by Michael Walzer in Spheres of Justice, that activities and relationships must be engaged in for their own sakes, not primarily to make money or gain status. To do activities only for the money’s sake is, as Hegel and Marx named it, alienation. These are common core moral understandings among conservatives, liberals and radicals underlying larger, empirically or social theoretically motivated differences in complex moral and political understandings which divide these modern political perspectives. Thus, liberalism, radicalism and conservatism I argued all emerge out of the rejection of slavery. They are all, in this broad sense, liberal. That we are all free, free to pursue our conscience so long as it does not harm others – and to speak out, as a “majority of one,” when such harm is done by the powerful, even if a large number support or commit atrocities – is the secret of a decent regime and an underlying commonality of these points of view. That is the core notion of democratic individuality.
But America has moved further to the Right. Perhaps I might sketch a complex international and domestic mechanism by which this occurs. Both of today's mainstream American political parties are dominated by money (they are in many respects only democratic parties, ones that even try to listen to ordinary people or serve a common good, in appearance). Even when decent, their policies primarily serve the rich. Worse, the American empire abroad, in particular, the vast engagements in military bases and financial domination (the WTO), results in a steady, seeping pressure to the right on the political parties. International politics, for the most part unchallenged from below, forces domestic politics in an anti-democratic direction (what I name in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? Princeton, 1999, anti-democratic feedback). Only in extreme circumstances like the Vietnam or Iraq war do democratic movements from below emerge to challenge the elite. The Right assaults; most of the Democrats cater. This was the story of the response to 9/11 and much politics since. It is a deformed right wing two step (a dance mainly to the right – see here).
Had a Democrat been President, some extreme measures might have been taken in response to 9/11, but not two crazed, ineffectual and self-destructive wars and torture. Today, it is no longer the name liberal but rather the name conservative that is in question, not mainly the other equal liberties, but habeas corpus itself which is under threat. Habeas corpus is the bare minimum that separates a system of law from tyranny. Even under Reagan, E.L. Doctorow stated this danger very well in a commencement speech at Brandeis in 1989: "This poisonous thing I'm trying to describe is [a] characteristic way of dealing with criticism It used to be enough to brand a critic as a radical or a leftist to make people turn away. Now we need only to call him a liberal. Soon 'moderate' will be the M word, 'conservative' will be the C word, and only fascists will be in the mainstream.'
The movement is clear. The miracle of electing Obama interrupts it. But only if we rally people to fight from below for law and decency will that interruption become a fact of a restored regime. There was once a sketch on Saturday Night Live of a Nazi Superman who observed that Jimmy Holstein was circumsized with his X-ray vision and flew him off to Auschwitz on the way to defeating the Russians at Stalingrad: “Untruth, Injustice and the Nazi way.” If morals are just what the powerful say they are with Thrasymachus in book 1 of Plato’s Republic – “justice is the advantage of the stronger,” a form of metaethical relativism – then of course there is nothing wrong with such an Uebermensch. But they are not. Ethics is the study minimally of what a decent life is for human beings. Democratic individuality in the above sense is; Nazi genocide is not. The difference is worth fighting for.
Often, conservatives are as timid as Democrats. In this period, however, I have found myself in agreement with Scott Horton and Andrew Sullivan daily about habeas corpus and the erosion of law. I also agree with Glenn Greenwald (a liberal who is termed a radical around here by bizarre authoritarians like Representative Peter King or mainstream reporters like Joe Klein – see the latter's confrontation with Aimai, my niece and a blogger at nomoremrniceblog, here); it is only the ACLU, whose lawsuits have finally forced the release of the CIA inspector general’s 2004 report three days ago by the Obama administration (that Obama released it, is modestly hopeful). Where is the mainstream press (the New York Times editorial page excepted) , the Congress (Congressman John Conyers and Senator Russ Feingold and some others excepted), or the President?
Attorney General Holder has appointed an independent prosecutor with the express purpose of rerunning the Abu Ghraib legal farce: let us punish little people like Charles Graner or Lynndie England for torture, while those who ordered it go to sip coffee with the elites or be interviewed as authoritaties on the “news” channels. This is what Thucydides meant when he spoke of public corruption, the denial of a common good – see here. In America, the standard for understanding public corruption goes back to the distinction in England, in 1218 of habeas corpus or the idea of law - that the doors of a court must be open to each prisoner who must not be tortured – and tyranny. Jack Balkin, the Yale constitutional law professor, has rightly spoken of the dangers of a new legal regime initiated by Bush but increasingly sanctioned by the Democrats: a National Surveillance state. Such a regime is a police state. In a post, Andrew Sullivan underlines the fascist criticism of American democracy, stemming from neoconservatives and as I have suggested, Straussians like William Kristol or Harvey Mansfield (see below). In another post, Sullivan identifies the decadence or corruption of American culture to which the Bush-Cheney regime has brought us and which Obama sadly largely maintains (see also below). These are a call for all of us to do what we can to restore America.
The Failings of our Democracy
By Andrew Sullivan
Scott Hinderaker [actually someone named John, but the rest of the post is apt] believes that democracy fails when it tries to keep its executive branch from violating the rule of law by authorizing the brutal torture and abuse of thousands of prisoners, many innocent. Let that sink in. It is part of the failure of democracy, in Hinderaker's view, that it doesn't empower the government to do anything it wants to do in the name of national security.
To put it bluntly, this is the classic fascist critique of liberal democracy. Fascists have always criticized democratic restraints on executive war-power, even when that war power is specifically designed to include citizens and to apply across the territory of the homeland as well as anywhere on the globe. As for the torture techniques previously used by the Gestapo, the Communist Chinese, the Soviet Gulag, and the Vietnamese, Hinderaker believes these were all "reasonably humane." What was done to John McCain, in Hinderaker's view, was humane, and certainly not torture; and what McCain was forced to confess was as reliable as the tortured confessions we now see on Iranian television.
Understanding the current right's embrace of total state power against the individual takes time to absorb. But liberal democracy has no more dangerous enemies than these.
The Evidence Mounts still Further
By Andrew Sullivan
I'll write at more length when I'm back off my summer bloggatical, but the question of torture - and the United States' embrace of inhumanity as a core American value under the presidency of George W. Bush - remains, in my view, the pre-eminent moral question in American politics. The descent of the United States - and of Americans in general - to lower standards of morality and justice than those demanded by Iranians of their regime is a sign of the polity's moral degeneracy. Compare these two stories today. Item One:
The charges of rape and torture have struck directly at the moral and religious authority the nation’s theocratic leaders claim. The government initially denied Mr. Karroubi’s charges, and the speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, said a review had proved they were baseless.
But Mr. Karroubi has refused to back down even as clerics and military leaders aligned with the government have called for his arrest. Faced with public disgust and outrage, the Parliament agreed to review his evidence. A parliamentary committee met with Mr. Karroubi on Monday. One member, Kazem Jalili, told Iranian news agencies that Mr. Karroubi had said that four people told him they had been raped.
You will notice once again that the New York Times is able to use the word "torture" to describe torture - but only when it is committed by governments other than that of the US. The NYT under the editorial guidance of Bill Keller has, by cowardice and weakness, abetted the degeneracy that Cheney accomplished. Every time the NYT uses a different standard to judge foreign and American torture, it undermines the core moral basis of liberal democracy. And if the NYT cannot stand firm, what chance someone like Pete King? Here he is, responding to acts that included murder, rape, sexual abuse and torture conducted by the CIA under the command of George W. Bush:
"When Holder was talking about being 'shocked' [before the report's release], I thought they were going to have cutting guys' fingers off or something – or that they actually used the power drill," he said. Pressed on whether interrogators had actually broken the law, King said he didn't think the Geneva Convention "applies to terrorists," and that the line between permitted and outlawed interrogation policies in the Bush years was "a distinction without a difference."
"Why is it OK to waterboard someone, which causes physical pain, but not threaten someone and not cause pain?" he asked, warning of a "chilling" effect on future CIA behavior.
King is right, of course, that the difference between what Bush authorized and the new revelations is non-existent. There is no moral or legal distinction between subjecting someone to 960 hours of sleep deprivation (as Bush did to Qahtani), or slamming people against walls, of freezing them to near-death, or murdering them by stress position ... and threatening to murder someone's kids or stage a mock execution. But King then draws the inference that all of it is fine, as long as it cannot be portrayed in the tabloids as literally drilling through a detainee's skull. (He seems unaware that this would actually kill someone, not torture them.)
But King is not alone in believing that the US should be less restrained by moral qualms than Iranians demand of their own illegitimate regime. Indeed, much of the American people, especially evangelical Christians, expect less in terms of human rights from their own government than Iranians do of theirs'. In fact, American evangelicals are much more pro-torture in this respect than many Iranian Muslims.
This is what Bush and Cheney truly achieved in their tragic response to 9/11: two terribly failed, brutally expensive wars, the revival of sectarian warfare and genocide in the Middle East, the end of America's global moral authority, the empowerment of Iran's and North Korea's dictatorships, and the nightmares of Gitmo and Bagram still haunting the new administration.
But what they did to the culture - how they systematically dismantled core American values like the prohibition on torture and respect for the rule of law - is the worst and most enduring of the legacies.
One political party in this country is now explicitly pro-torture, and wants to restore a torture regime if it regains power. Decent conservatives for the most part simply looked the other way. Unless these cultural forces in defense of violence and torture are defeated - not appeased or excused, but defeated - America will never return the way it once was. Electing a new president was the start and not the end of this. He is flawed, as every president is, but in my view, the scale of the mess he inherited demands some slack. Any new criminal investigation which scapegoats those at the bottom while protecting the guilty men and women who made it happen is a travesty of justice. If it is the end and not the beginning of accountability, it will be worse than nothing.
But it need not be the end of the story. Indeed, it can be the beginning if we make it so. We cannot stop this sad and minuscule attempt to restore a scintilla of accountability to some individuals low down on the totem pole. Eric Holder is doing what he can. But we can continue to lobby and argue for the extension of accountability to the truly guilty men who made all this happen and still refuse to take responsibility for war crimes on a coordinated scale never before seen in American warfare, and initiated by a presidential decision to withdraw from the Geneva Conventions and refuse to abide by their plain meaning and intent.
Our job, in other words, is to raise the core moral baseline of Americans to that of Iranians. That's the depth of the hole Cheney dug. And it's a hole the current GOP wants to dig deeper and darker.
*For the first post, immigration or why Andrew Sullivan and I agree about an emerging police state, see here.